Orono Middle School Students Embrace their Culture with Classmates and Community

Students and their families pose for a photo at the culture festival

(Pictured: Students and their families pose for a photo at the culture festival)

Highlighting the diversity of students is crucial to fostering a sense of belonging, both in schools and in the wider community. To accomplish this, and to enjoy delicious foods from across the world while doing it, students at Orono Middle School  held a cultural festival to celebrate their different backgrounds. The event was organized by middle school teacher, Jessica Archer, who recently was recognized as Penobscot County’s 2023 Teacher of the Year for her innovative teaching.

The origins of the cultural festival began with Archer’s desire to deepen her understanding of the culture and experiences of her students, especially those from outside of the country. Recognizing the need for a greater understanding of her students’ diverse backgrounds, she interviewed many of them, asking each student questions about their culture and background. At the end of each interview, she asked, “What do you want people to understand about your culture?” That question elicited several responses from students who felt that their classmates did not understand them because they did not know more about their culture. Archer then asked the students if they would like to participate in an event celebrating their unique cultures which, in her words, led many of her students’ faces to “light up” with joy.

Inspired by her students’ answers during their conversation, Archer decided to write a story about each student’s background from their point of view. After sharing the drafts with her students and their families to ensure accuracy, Archer published the stories, along with pictures, to display on a school bulletin board. The board displayed a map of the world, with strings connecting each of her students to their country of origin. Archer also recognized a greater need to spread awareness around her students’ cultural backgrounds beyond her classroom and with the rest of the school’s student body. After speaking with two of her students who celebrated Ramadan and wished their peers better understood the holiday and their culture, Archer helped them to create an informational bulletin board and place it in the school’s foyer.

The after-school culture festival Archer organized was a success and attended by nearly 40 participants who learned from the eight families from different parts of the world. Students and their families from or with ties to Ukraine, France, Jordan, South Africa, Guatemala, Israel, Turkey, and Myanmar gathered to celebrate their culture, experiences, and of course, delicious food.

Students’ dishes included Middle Eastern Za’atar bread and traditional Ukrainian Potato Varenyky, a dish like dumplings. But the event also represented much more than just a culinary adventure. In addition to food, families also shared visual and audio representations of their culture. Students and families who participated felt the event was valuable in helping foster a better understanding of different cultures represented within the school and community. Alex, one of the parents who participated in the event wrote that the culture festival “offers a unique opportunity to discover the variety and richness of the Orono immigrant families’ cultural and gastronomical backgrounds.” Khawla, another parent, wrote, “the cultural festival at schools is an excellent way to build a strong foundation for diversity in the community by bringing people together from different cultures, religions, regions, and backgrounds to get to know each other, share ideas, food, and mind in a spirit of peace, unity, and togetherness.”

The event taught valuable lessons to students and families alike on the diversity of their community. Sophia, one of  Archer’s students who participated in the event said, “people make assumptions about people from other countries. It is important that we learn about each other and ask questions before making assumptions and judgments.” Archer hopes to expand the event to include families other schools throughout RSU #26 next year to continue sharing and celebrating the diverse backgrounds of her students.

This story was drafted by Maine DOE Intern Ryan Hafener in collaboration with Jessica Archer as part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. To submit a story or an idea, email Rachel Paling, Maine DOE Communications and Outreach Coordinator at rachel.paling@maine.gov.